A Q&A with the co-owner of popular salad restaurant Mandy’s, about potato chip mix-ins, TikTok trends and how much is too much for a salad

A Q&A with the co-owner of popular salad restaurant Mandy’s, about potato chip mix-ins, TikTok trends and how much is too much for a salad

Photo courtesy of Mandy Wolfe

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Following in the footsteps of poutine and smoked meat, Mandy’s salads can now be added to the list of edible Montreal exports to make it big in Toronto. The gourmet greens purveyor—an institution in La Belle Provence for over a decade—opened its first Toronto outpost this past spring, with additional locations already in the works. The brand’s second cookbook, aptly titled More Mandy’s, was released in September and focuses on salads for the colder months—because they’re not just for summer. Here, co-owner Mandy Wolfe explains why they chose Ossington to set up shop, how much is too much for a salad and the one ingredient that just doesn’t work as a mix-in.

I was looking at Mandy’s Instagram account and noticed a salad topped with what looks like Ruffles chips. Chips! On a salad! Is nothing sacred?
Ha. Yes, they’re actually Ruffles sour cream and onion chips. We created that salad during our last pregnancies—yes, my sister and I do everything together. We were having all of these cravings for cold cuts and cheese and chips, so this is what we came up with. It’s basically an amazing deli sandwich but without the bread. Maybe it’s not the healthiest salad, but it’s very satisfying. One of the things we really love to do is take a meal we love and figure out how to put it through our salad translator.

Is there anything that doesn’t translate?
The only thing we have tried that didn’t work in salad form was smoked salmon. We tried to do a deconstructed bagel salad—cream cheese, lemon, capers, onion—but for whatever reason the consistency of the salmon just didn’t work. It tasted…wet, which is obviously not very appetizing. I think pretty much everything else we have tried has been a success. One of our recent specials was a Thai basil eggplant salad based on a dish that I love from a Thai stand in a Montreal food court called Bangkok Express. We also did a hoisin duck salad with a steamed bao on the side, which was also really good.

Dessert salad: yea or nay?
When we have group meetings, we’ll chop up our cookies and brownies and toss them all together—maybe dump some gummies in there. I don’t know if that’s quite a salad, but it’s really good.

I was going to ask if a salad has to include lettuce, but I feel like I know the answer.
Not necessarily. Particularly, as we go into the colder months, a lot of our salads are more like bowls, so the base can be brown rice or farro or rice noodle. Greens can come from lots of fresh herbs. That’s one of the things we’re focused on in our second cookbook. The first one came out in the spring, so it was all light ingredients, fruit—the kinds of things you’d want to bring to a summer barbecue. The new cookbook focuses on dishes that feel more substantial, hearty. We’ve got a new wild mushroom salad launching in October that I think is going to be really popular: porcini, chestnut and oyster mushrooms with cooked farro and asparagus tossed in a truffle oil vinaigrette.

You opened your first Toronto location on Ossington back in March, and I swear there has been a lineup outside ever since. People use the term “cult following” to describe your fan base. What’s the secret?
I like to think that our salads are fun. They’re not diet food. When we talk about “healthy,” we mean full fats, fresh ingredients. We’ve definitely got some very fun and unique combinations, and the environment is also fun and unique. The design is entirely my sister Becca, who has been in charge of our aesthetic from the start. It’s sort of like Palm Springs meets Paris meets the Bahamas. People tend to think of healthy restaurants as being kind of sterile, but we’re the opposite of that.

So you’re on recipes and your sister is on design?
Yes. We never really discussed it, but I was always the one with the passion for food and cooking, and Becca has always had a very keen eye and sense of style. She was the one who came up with the idea for Mandy’s. It was the early aughts; I was running a small catering company in Toronto, and Becca was living in New York doing an arts degree at Parson’s. She came home and told me about all of the salad bars she was seeing over there and why we needed to launch something similar in Montreal. Our first location was in the back of a clothing boutique in Westmount. It looked pretty similar to what we have today, but the name was different—Greens and Co., which was sort of soulless. Becca was the one who said that we needed to change the name. I’m still not totally comfortable sharing a name with it, but from a branding perspective, I think it was the right call.

Mandy’s all-time bestselling salad: the Crunchy Sesame. Photo by Ebti Nabag

What was the first Mandy’s salad to take off?
The Crunchy Sesame was the one that brought people in and kept them coming back for more. It was inspired by a salad that one of our mom’s friends served every summer at our family barbecues. It had crunchy ramen noodles as a mix-in, and we were obsessed with it. We took the ingredients and added some of our own touches, like avocado, and it really worked out. It’s still on our menu today, the exact same recipe.

Inflation is hitting produce sections hard. Presumably it’s hitting salad empires as well?
It’s definitely been tough. Our avocado costs alone have gone up almost 50 percent. Avocado is in almost all of our salads, and it was expensive enough to begin with. The cost of lettuce is up, tomatoes, even olive oil. We’ve upped our prices a very small amount: around fifty cents a salad, which means we’re still eating a large amount of the losses.

How much is too much for a salad?
I think $25 is a lot. The most expensive salad I’ve seen was at a restaurant in Miami, and it involved Kobe beef. I forget how much it cost, but it was enough that I didn’t order it. Price point is something we have talked about a lot over the years. In 2015, we did a lobster roll salad—it was really delicious, but the cost and labour involved meant we were charging $30 and still not breaking even. It didn’t last.

You moved to Toronto during a pandemic. Was that on purpose?
We were looking at Toronto locations before the pandemic. We were very close to signing a lease on a space in Yorkville in February 2020, and I can’t tell you how relieved we are that it didn’t go through. We signed our lease on the Ossington location a year ago. We were definitely a little worried over the holidays with Omicron and boosters and just hoping that we hadn’t made a huge mistake, but by the time we opened, in March, things seemed to have calmed down.

Why did you end up choosing Ossington?
We looked at a bunch of locations, including in Yorkville, as mentioned, and in the Financial District. We felt like Ossington was more us: very creative, very foodie, and the space itself isn’t too big, which felt like the right call for our first dip in the Toronto waters. I think it’s worked out well for us to be in a residential neighborhood, with so many people working from home now.

I gather expansion plans are in the works.
In the last few months, we’ve launched Mandy’s takeout in two ghost kitchens—one in Liberty Village and one in the north end at Dufferin. That was basically to expand our delivery footprint. As for our next restaurant location, that will be opening next spring in The Well, the new mall along Wellington. The location is going to be a lot bigger, with a 40-seat patio.

Last thing: “pizza salad” is something that’s currently dividing the internet. Drew Barrymore posted about it on TikTok, and people are freaking out.
I actually haven’t seen that. We do our best to stay on top of these things, but we have a social media team that handles our TikTok account. Both my sister and I are in our 40s, so sometimes it’s like, Whaaaat?

I’ll catch you up. The clip shows Barrymore scraping all of the cheese and toppings off of a pizza and into a salad. The pizza community is calling it sacrilege. Thoughts?
I think that there are no rules. If it hits your craving, then go for it.